'Dunkirk' Could Launch a 70mm Film Presentation Renaissance

Dunkirk Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which opens today, could herald a revival of 70-mm film exhibition. Nolan himself has been a long-time proponent of large-format 70mm film projected on to the big screen, and his new war epic will be available on both Imax 70mm and standard 70mm screens.

Thanks to a reclamation project that was undertaken to locate and restore projectors when The Weinstein Co. distributed Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight in 2015, there is now an existing base of theaters capable of  presenting the format, which Warners has been able to build on for Dunkirk's release. And now there are other elite filmmakers waiting in the wings who would like to include large-format 70mm film as part of their release plans.

Disney and Lucasfilm's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is scheduled for a Dec. 15 release, is among upcoming projects that may take advantage of the format, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. Others include Murder on the Orient Express, which Fox is slated to open on Nov. 10, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which Disney has slated for a Nov. 2, 2018 release. 

The wide, high-resolution 70mm format — which has been used to display classics such as Ben Hur, The Sound of Music and Lawrence of Arabia — is a favorite among many movie buffs, but its use has been limited since the start of the digital cinema era, which began in the early 2000s.

Nolan in particular has been a fierce supporter of film and even helped broker 2015 deals between the Hollywood studios and Kodak, the last remaining maker of motion picture film, in order to keep celluloid alive. In a 2015 talk at the Getty Research Institute, Nolan argued that film can be “a selling point for a theater,” pointing to his current film at the time, Interstellar, which he said, "did incredibly well [on film]. We spoke about it in our advertising."

Much of Dunkirk was lensed with Imax film cameras by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, a two-time BAFTA nominee for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Interstellar. Nolan had previously used Imax film cameras to shoot a growing portion of his movies, beginning with 2008's The Dark Knight.

For Dunkirk, Kodak made all of the film, which included 65mm for production (films are shot in 65mm for projection in 70mm), and 70mm and 35mm for exhibition. Fotokem, the last remaining film lab in Los Angeles, handled all of the developing and printing. That including the prints for the 15-perf Imax and 5-perf (standard) 70mm release, as well as an anamorphic 35mm film version.

Dunkirk is slated to go out to 31 Imax 70mm screens and roughly 100 standard 70mm sites — making it among the largest 70mm releases in the last quarter century. An additional 50 sites will show the film in anamorphic 35mm, according to a source.

By comparison, The Hateful Eight was shown in 70mm in roughly 100 theaters. When TWC undertook that release, it proved challenging due to both the scarcity of equipment and the expertise needed to operate the projectors. With the help of Boston Light & Sound, TWC first had to locate projectors and then rebuild and install them for the theatrical presentations at a total cost of $8 million-$10 million, according to sources. Those projectors were recently purchased from TWC by Warners for its Dunkirk presentation. In the end, the 70mm version of Hateful Eight grossed $13.6 million of the movie's $54.1 million domestic haul. 

“There’s a lot of excitement based on how well Hateful Eight did," said Chapin Cutler, co-founder and principal of Boston Light & Sound, which is back on 70mm projection duty for Dunkirk. “We’ve been talking about this with Warner Bros. for the better part of a year. We got serious in January. We were asked to replicate what we did for Hateful Eight with some slight changes (since many of the projectors are still at the sites used for Tarantino's release)."

With those projectors available, in addition to select new releases, it’s rumored that Kodak is instigating the rerelease of some of the 70mm era’s classic films, though the company declined comment.

Theaters scheduled to project 70mm film prints of Dunkirk include AMC Burbank in Los Angeles and AMC Lincoln Square in New York, as well as the ArcLight Dome in Hollywood, while the film will be presented in 70mm Imax at sites including the AMC Universal Citywalk.